The Battle of Ball's Bluff
The Report of Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone
HEADQUARTERS CORPS OF OBSERVATION,
Poolesville, October 29, 1861.
Brig. Gen. S. WILLIAMS,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Headquarters Army of the Potomac
As much time must elapse before complete reports can be obtained from the various commanders of regiments, I have the honor to submit the following preliminary report of the operations of my command on the 21st instant.
On the 20th instant, being advised from headquarters of the movement of General McCall to Dranesville and to make a demonstration to draw out the intentions of the enemy at Leesburg, I proceeded at 1 p.m. to Edwards Ferry with German's brigade, the Seventh Michigan Regiment of Volunteers, two troops of the Van Alen Cavalry, and the Putnam Rangers, sending at the same time to Harrison's lsland and vicinity four companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, under Colonel Devens, who had already one company on the island, and Colonel Lee, with a battalion of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers, and to Conrad's Ferry a section of Vaughan's Rhode Island Battery, and the Tammany Regiment, under Colonel Cogswell. A section of Bunting's New York State Militia battery, under Lieutenant Bramhall, was at the time on duty at Conrad's Ferry, and Ricketts' battery already posted at Edwards Ferry, under Lieutenant Woodruff.
The movement of General McCall on the day previous seemed to have attracted the attention of the enemy, as just before my arrival at Edwards Ferry a regiment of infantry had appeared from the direction of Leesburg, and taken shelter behind a wooded hill near Goose Creek, about 19 miles from our position at the ferry.
I ordered General Gorman to display his forces in view of the enemy, which was done without inducing any movement on their part, and then ordered three flat-boats to be passed from the canal into the river, at the same time throwing shells and spherical-case shot into and beyond the wood where the enemy were concealed and into all cover from which fire could be opened on boats crossing the river, to produce an impression that. a crossing was to be made.
Orders were also sent to Colonel Devens, at Harrison's Island, 34 to 4 miles up the river and nearly east of Leesburg, to detach Captain Philbrick, with 20 men, to cross from the island and explore by a path through the woods, little used, in the direction of Leesburg, to see if he could find anything concerning the enemy's position in that direction, but to retire and report on discovering any of the enemy.
The launching of the boats and shelling at Edwards Ferry. caused the rapid retiring of the force which had been seen there, and I caused the embarkation of three boat loads of 35 men each from the First Minnesota Volunteers, who, under cover of the shelling, crossed and re-crossed the river, the boats consuming in the passage four minutes, six minutes, and seven minutes, respectively. The spirit displayed by officers and men at the thought of passing the river was most cheering, and satisfied me that they could be depended on for most gallant service whenever something more than a demonstration might be required of them.
As darkness came on I ordered German's brigade and the Seventh Michigan Volunteers back to their respective camps, but retained the Tammany Regiment, the companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, and the artillery near Conrad's Ferry in their positions, awaiting the result of Captain Philbrick's scout, remaining with my staff at Edwards Ferry.
About 10 o'clock p.m. Lieutenant Howe, regimental quartermaster Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, reported to me that Captain Phil-brick had returned to the island after proceeding unmolested to within about a mile of Leesburg, and that he had there discovered, in the edge of a wood, an encampment of about thirty tents, which he had approached to within 25 rods without being challenged, the camp having no pickets out any distance in the direction of the river. I at once sent orders to Colonel Devens to cross four companies of his regiment to the Virginia shore, march silently, under cover of night, to the position of the camp referred to to attack and destroy it at daybreak, pursue the enemy lodged there as far as would be prudent with his small force, and return rapidly to the island, his return to be covered by a company of the Massachusetts Twentieth which was directed to be posted on the bluff directly over the landing place.
Colonel Devens was ordered to use this opportunity to observe the approaches to Leesburg and the position and force of any enemy in the vicinity, and in case he found no enemy or found him only weak, and a position where he could observe well 'and be secure until his party could be strengthened sufficiently to make a valuable reconnaissance which should safely ascertain the position and force of the enemy, to hold on and report.
Orders were dispatched to Colonel Baker to send the First California regiment to Conrad's Ferry, to arrive there at sunrise, and to have the remainder of his brigade in a state of readiness to move after an early breakfast. Also to Lieutenant-Colonel Ward, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, to move with a battalion of the regiment to the river bank, opposite Harrison's Island, to arrive there by daybreak. Lieutenant French, of Ricketts' battery, was detached with two mountain howitzers, and ordered to the tow-path of the canal opposite Harrison's Island.
Colonel Devens in pursuance of his orders, crossed the river and proceeded to the point indicated by the scouting party, Colonel Lee remaining on the bluff with 100 men to cover his return.
In order to distract attention from Colonel Devens' movement and at the same time to effect a reconnaissance in the direction of Leesburg from Edwards Ferry, I directed General Gorman to throw across the river at that point two companies of the First Minnesota Volunteers under the cover of a fire from Ricketts' battery, and sent out a party of 31 Van Alert Cavalry, under Major Mix, accompanied by Capt. Charles Stewart, assistant adjutant-general, Captain Murphy, Lieutenants Pierce and Gourand, with orders to advance along the Leesburg road until they should come to the vicinity of a battery which was known to be on that road and then turn to the left, and examine the heights between that and Goose Creek, see if any of the enemy were posted in the vicinity, ascertain as nearly as possible their number and disposition, examine the country with reference to the passage of troops to the Leesburg and Georgetown turnpike, and return rapidly to cover behind the skirmishers of the Minnesota First.
This reconnaissance was most gallantly conducted by all in the party, which proceeded along the Leesburg road nearly or quite 2 miles from the ferry, and when near the position of the hidden battery came suddenly upon a Mississippi regiment, about 35 yards distant, received its fire, and returned it with their pistols. The fire of the enemy killed 1 horse, but Lieutenant Gourand seized the dismounted many and, drawing him on his horse behind him, carried him unhurt from the field. One private of the Fourth Virginia Cavalry was brought off by the party a prisoner. This prisoner being well mounted and armed, his <ar5_295>mount replaced the one lost by the fire of the enemy. Meantime, on the right Colonel Devens having, in pursuance of his orders, arrived at the position indicated by the scouts as the site of the enemy's camp found that the scouts had been deceived by the uncertain light and had mistaken openings in the trees for a row of tents. He found, however, a wood, in which he concealed his force from view, and proceeded to examine the space between that and Leesburg, sending back to report that thus far he could see no enemy. Immediately on receipt of this intelligence (brought me by Lieutenant Howe, regimental quartermaster, who had accompanied both the parties), I ordered a non-commissioned officer and 10 cavalry to join Colonel Devens, for the purpose of scouring the country near him while engaged in his reconnaissance and giving due notice of the approach of any force, and that Lieutenant-Colonel Ward, with his battalion of the Fifteenth Massachusetts, should move on to Smart's Mill, half a mile to the right of the crossing place of Colonels Devens and Lee, where, in a strong position, he could watch and protect the flank of Colonel Devens in his return, and secure a second crossing place more favorable than the first, and connected by a good road with Leesburg.
Captain Candy, assistant adjutant-general on General Lander's staff, who did me the honor to serve through the day on mine, accompanied the cavalry, to serve with it.
For some reason never explained to me, neither of these orders was carried out. The cavalry were transferred to the Virginia shore, but were sent back without having left the shore to go inland, and thus Colonel Devens was deprived of the means of obtaining warning of any approach of the enemy. The battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Ward was detained on the bluff in rear of Colonel Devons, instead of being directed to the right.
Colonel Baker, having arrived at Conrad's Ferry with the First California Regiment at an early hour in the morning, reported in person to me at Edwards Ferry, Stating that the regiment was at its assigned post, the remainder of his brigade under arms ready to march, and asking for orders. I decided to send him to Harrison's Island to assume command, and in a full conversation with him explained the position of things as they then stood according to reports received; told him that General McCall had advanced his troops to Dranesville, and that I was extremely desirous of ascertaining the exact position and force of the enemy in our front, and exploring as far as it was safe on the right towards Leesburg and on the left towards the Leesburg and Gum Spring road; that I should continue to re-enforce the troops under General Gorman opposite Edwards Ferry, and try to push them carefully forward to discover the best line from that ferry to the Leesburg and Gum Spring road already mentioned, and pointed out to him the position of the breastworks and hidden battery which barred the movement of troops directly from left to right. I detailed to him the means of transportation across the river, of the sufficiency of which he was to be the judge; authorized him to make use of the guns of a section each of Vaughan's and Bunting's batteries, together with French's mountain howitzers, all the troops of his brigade and Cogswell's Tammany regiment, besides the Nineteenth and part of the Twentieth Regiments Massachusetts Volunteers, and left it to his discretion, are viewing the ground, to retire the troops from the Virginia shore under the cover of his guns and the fire of the large infantry force, or to pass over re-enforcements in case he found it practicable and the position on the other side strong and favorable ; that I wished no advance made <ar5_296>unless the enemy were in inferior force and under no circumstances to pass beyond Leesburg, or a strong position between it and Goose Creek, on the Gum Spring (Manassas) road. I cautioned him in reference to passing artillery across the river, and begged him, if he did so, to see it well supported by good infantry. I pointed out to him the positions of some bluffs on this side the river from which artillery could act with effect on the other, and leaving the matter of crossing more troops or retiring what were already over to his discretion, gave him entire control of operations on the right.
This gallant and energetic officer left me at about 9 or 9.30 a.m. and proceeded rapidly up the river to his charge. Re-enforcements were rapidly thrown to the Virginia side by General Gorman at Edwards Ferry, and his skirmishers and cavalry scouts advanced cautiously and steadily to the front and right, while the infantry lines were formed in such positions as to act rapidly and in concert in case of an advance of the enemy, and shells were thrown by Lieutanant Woodruff's Parrott guns into the woods beyond our lines as they gradually extended, especial care being taken to annoy the vicinity of the battery on the right.
Messengers from Harrison's Island informed me soon after the arrival of Colonel Baker opposite the island that he was crossing his whole force as rapidly as possible, and that he had caused an additional flat-boat to be lifted from the canal into the river, and had provided a line by which to cross the boats more rapidly.
During the morning a sharp skirmish took place between two of the advanced companies of the Massachusetts Fifteenth and a body about 100 strong of Mississippi riflemen, during which a body of the enemy's cavalry appeared, causing Colonel Devens to fall back in good order on Colonel Lee's position; after which he again advanced his officers and men behaving admirably, fighting, retiring and advancing in perfect order, and exhibiting every proof of high courage and good discipline. Had he at this time had the cavalry scouting party which was sent him in the morning, but which most unfortunately had been turned back without his knowledge, he could doubtless have had timely warning of the approach of the superior force which afterwards overwhelmed his regiment and their brave commander and comrades.
Thinking that Colonel Baker might be able to use more artillery I dispatched to him two additional pieces of Vaughan's battery, supported by two companies of infantry, with directions to its officer to come into position below the place of crossing and report to Colonel Baker. My opinion was justified by his suggesting the same thing later in the day, and only a short time before the guns must have arrived.
After Colonel Deveus' second advance Colonel Baker seems to have gone to the field in person, and I am sorry to say he has left no record of what officers and men he charged with the care of the boats and insuring the regular passage of the troops. If any were charged with this duty it was not performed, for it appears that the re-enforcements as they arrived found no system enforced, and the boats delayed most unnecessarily in transporting back, a few at a timer the wounded as they happened to arrive, with their attendants. Had an efficient officer with one company remained at each landing guarding the boats, their full capacity would have been made serviceable, and sufficient men would have passed on to secure the success of his operation. The forwarding of artillery (necessarily a slow process) before its supporting force of infantry also impeded the rapid assembling of an imposing force on the Virginia shore. The infantry which was waiting with impatience, should have been first transported, and this alone would have made a difference in the infantry line at the time of attack of at least 1,000 men, enough to have turned the scale in our favor.
At about 12.30 or 1 o'clock p.m. the enemy appeared in force in front of Colonel Evens, and a sharp skirmish ensued, which was maintained for a considerable time by the Fifteenth Massachusetts, unsupported: and, finding himself about to be outflanked, Colonel Evens retired a short distance in good order, and took up a position in the edge of a wood about half or three-quarters of a mile in front of the position of Colonel Lee, where he remained until 2 o'clock p.m., when he again fell back, with the approval of Colonel Baker, and took his place in line with those portions of the Twentieth Massachusetts and First California Regiments which had arrived. Colonel Baker immediately formed his line and awaited the attack of the enemy, which came upon him with great vigor about 3 o'clock p.m., and was met with admirable spirit by our troops, who, though evidently struggling against largely superior numbers (nearly if not quite three to one), maintained their ground and a most destructive fire on the enemy. Colonel Cogwheel, with a small portion of his regiment, succeeded in reaching the field in the midst of the heaviest fire, and they came gallantly into action with a yell which wavered the enemy's line.
Lieutenant Baronial, of Bunting's battery, had succeeded, after extraordinary exertion and labor, in bringing up a piece of the Rhode Island Battery, and Lieutenant French, First Artillery, his two mountain howitzers; but while for a short time these maintained a well-directed fire, both officers and nearly all the men were soon borne away wounded, and the pieces were hauled to the rear to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy.
At about 4 p.m. Colonel Baker, pierced by a number of bullets, fell at the front of his command while cheering his men, and by his own example sustaining the obstinate resistance they were making.
Colonel Lee then took command, and prepared to commence throwing our forces to the rear, but Colonel Cogwheel, of the Tammany regiment, being found to be senior in rank, assumed the command, and ordered dispositions to be made immediately for marching to the left and cutting a way through to Edwards Ferry. Unfortunately, just as the first dispositions were being made, an officer of the enemy rode rapidly in front of the Tammany regiment and beckoned them towards the enemy. Whether the Tammany understood this as an order from one of our officers or an invitation to close work, is not known; but the men responded to the gesture with a yell, and charged forward, carrying with them in their advance the rest of the line, which soon received a murderous fire from the enemy at close distance. Our officers rapidly recalled the men, but in the position they had now got into it was impracticable to make the movement designed, and Colonel Cogswell reluctantly gave the order to retire. The enemy pursued our troops to the edge of the bluff over the landing place, and thence poured in a heavy fire on our men, who were endeavoring to cross to the island.
Rapid as the retreat necessarily was, there was no neglect of others. The men formed near the river, deployed as skirmishers, and main. rained for twenty minutes or more the unequal and hopeless contest rather than surrender. The smaller boats had disappeared, no one knew where. The largest boat, rapidly and too heavily loaded, swamped at 15 feet from the shore, and nothing was left to our soldiers but to swim, surrender, or die. With a devotion worthy of the cause they were serving, officers and men, while quarter was being offered to such as would lay down their arms, stripped themselves of their swords and muskets and hurled them out into the river to prevent their falling into the hands of the foe, and saved themselves as they could by swimming, floating on logs and concealing themselves in the bushes and forest to make their way up and down the river bank to a place of crossing.
The instances of personal gallantry of the highest order were so many, that it would be unjust now to detail particular cases. Officers displayed for their men and men for their officers true beautiful devotion which is only to be found among true soldiers.
While these scenes were being enacted on the right, I was preparing on the left for a rapid push forward to the road by which the enemy would retreat if driven, and entirely unsuspicious of the perilous condition of our troops on the right. The additional artillery had already been sent in anticipation, and when I questioned the messenger who left the field about 3 o'clock as to Colonel Baker's position, he informed, me that the colonel, when he left, seemed to feel perfectly secure and could doubtless hold his own in case he should not advance. The same statement was made by another messenger half an hour later, and I watched anxiously for a sign of advance on the right, in order to push forward General Gorman. It was, as had been explained to Colonel Baker, impracticable to throw German's brigade directly to the right by reason of the battery in the woods, between which we had never been able to reconnoiter.
At about 4 p.m. I telegraphed to General Banks, requesting him to send a brigade from his division, intending it to occupy the ground on this side the river near Harrison's Island, which would be abandoned in case of a rapid advance, and shortly after, as the fire slackened above, I awaited a messenger on whose tidings I should give orders either for the advance of Gorman to cut off the retreat of the enemy or for dispositions for the night in our present position.
Captain Candy arrived from the field of Colonel Baker a little before 5 p.m. and announced to me the melancholy tidings of Colonel Baker's death, having no news of any further disaster, but stating that re-enforce-ments were slow. I instantly telegraphed to Major-General Banks and the major-general commanding the fact of Colonel Baker's death, and rode rapidly to the right to assume command.
Before arriving opposite the island the evidences of the disaster began to be met in men who had crossed the river by swimming, and on reaching the boat landing the fact was asserted in such a manner as not to be doubted. The reports brought me of the enemy's force were highly exaggerated, it being stated at 10,000 men. I gave orders far the island to be held for the removal of the wounded, established a patrol on the tow-path from opposite the island to the line of pickets near the Monocacy, and returned to the left to secure the troops there from disaster, preparing means of removing them as rapidly as possible.
Orders arrived from headquarters Army of the Potomac to hold the island and Virginia shore at Edwards Ferry at all hazards, promising re-enforcements, and I caused additional intrenching tools to be forwarded to General Gorman, with instructions to intrench and hold out against whatever force might appear.
I should add, that having learned that General Hamilton, with his brigade, was on the march from Darnestown before I left to go to the right, I caused orders to intercept him, and instructed him to repair to Conrad's Ferry, where I had orders awaiting him to so dispose of his force as to give protection to Harrison's Island and protect the line of the river.
Early in the night the telegraph informed me that Major-General Banks was on his way with his division to re-enforce me, and at about 3 o'clock a.m. the general arrived and assumed command.
A report of my division for the following days will be speedily made out and forwarded.
I cannot conclude this report without bearing testimony to the courage, good discipline, and conduct of all the troops of this division during the day, the events of which have been related in this hurriedly-written report. Those in action behaved like veterans, and those not brought into action showed that alacrity and steadiness in their movements which proved their anxiety to engage the foe in their country's cause.
We mourn the loss of the brave departed dead on the field of honor, if not of success; and we miss the companionship of those of our comrades who have fallen into the hands of our enemies. But all feel that they have earned the title of soldier, and all await with increased confidence another measurement of strength with the foe.
Very respectfully, I am, general, your most obedient servant,
CHAS. P. STONE,
Source: Official Records of the War of the Rebellion
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